Although the Spanish Civil War certainly became a struggle of great international significance, it began as a distinctly Spanish conflict in the summer of 1936. On 17 July a group of right-wing army officers launched a coup against the democratic centre-left government of the Spanish Republic.
Essentially the outcome of longer-term socio-economic inequalities and political divisions, the Civil War was an escalation of a bitter and uneven struggle between the forces of reform and the reactionary forces of entrenched privilege in Spain.
The coup divided the country geographically, largely along political lines. Three years of fighting followed, eventually resulting in victory for the rebel forces and four decades of authoritarian dictatorship under General Francisco Franco.
War in the North
In March 1937 the rebels began their northern campaign against the Basque Country – an important industrial centre. Even the socially conservative Basque Nationalist Party had sided with the Republic, as the rebels were opposed to any form of separatism within Spain.
The northern campaign included bombing raids, carried out by the German Condor Legion. The Luftwaffe’s involvement contravened the Non-Intervention Agreement, which the major European powers had concluded the previous summer.
Background image: Street Fighting, the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Editorial credit: Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com
Image: Map of the Basque Country.
Britain and France, in the spirit of appeasement, were concerned that the Civil War might escalate into a general continental war and hoped non-intervention would quarantine the conflict. Non-intervention meant that, in the face of the rebels blockading the Basque coast, the British government refused to protect British ships bearing vital food supplies to Bilbao – although some captains bravely decided to run the blockade.
During the course of the Civil War, the non-intervention agreement was ignored by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, who provided vital assistance to the rebels, and by the Soviet Union, which helped the Republic to a lesser extent. Famously, anti-fascist volunteers from around the world also fought against Franco as part of the International Brigades.
Image: On the Guadalajara Front, a soldier of the Spanish Republican (loyalist) army looks out for airplanes. April 1937. Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.
Image: International Brigades Flag. Editorial credit: Philip Robinson 1 / Shutterstock.com
The Bombing of Guernica
German and Italian aircraft bombed the historic Basque market town of Guernica during the afternoon of 26 April 1937. The horror of Guernica – essentially a trial run of the kind of civilian terror-bombing that would be replicated on a larger scale in the Second World War – was immortalised in Pablo Picasso’s famous painting.
Image: Guernica after a series of bombings by planes of the German Luftwaffe ‘Condor Legion’ and the Italian Fascist ‘Aviazione Legionaria’ on April 29, 1937.
Image: Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso reproduced on a Spanish postage stamp. Editorial credit: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com
Guernica’s profound impact on international public opinion was also a major factor behind the mass evacuation of children from the Basque Country.
This included nearly 4,000 boys and girls who left the port of Santurce near Bilbao on 21 May, destined for an uncertain future in England.
The Situation in Bilbao
Strict rationing was in force in Bilbao and for many weeks the people had been living on beans, rice, cabbage and 35g of black bread a day. British Doctors Richard Ellis and Audrey Russell flew out to Bilbao to carry out medical examinations on the children selected from 10,000 applicants. Some of the medical exams had to take place at night due to bombing. Each child was then handed a cardboard hexagonal disk with an identification number and the words ‘Expedición a Inglaterra’ (‘Expedition to England) printed on it.
According to one contemporary report, the children had a final meal in Bilbao of “white bread rolls with chorizo and hard-boiled eggs and sponge cake”.
When the children said a tearful goodbye, their parents were able to comfort them, and themselves, with the belief that their separation would be only for three months.
However, their prediction was very optimistic, for many of the children would not see their parents, friends and relatives again.
Image: A Tearful Farewell boarding the Habana at Bilbao. Used with kind permission of the BCA’37 UK. The Association for the UK Basque Children.
Image: Label of the Departamento de Asistencia Social, one for each Basque child refugee on board the ship. Used with kind permission of the University of Southampton Special Collections.
A key figure in organising the evacuation was the former Labour MP, Leah Manning, who had been a student in Cambridge and teacher in the city’s ‘ragged school’ for the poor. She worked tirelessly in Bilbao to encourage mothers to register their children for escape to Britain and led the campaign also supported by the Duchess of Atholl, a Conservative MP, to persuade the government to allow the children to come.